The essence of decent work


The essence of decent work by Penny Abbott

“Some interested groups appear, incorrectly, to associate decent work with the optimal work standards to which workers may aspire, and to seek these through collective bargaining. The true meaning of the term is more closely associated with a minimum floor of legislated standards. The primary areas of decent work deficits are not in the formal sector, but in the informal sector [exacerbated by the failure to enforce current laws].”
John Brand, Employment Law Director at Bowman Gilfillan, Business Day, May 2011.

Today is international decent work day and the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP) would like to encourage South African society to reflect on decent work in South Africa and the countries in which we operate in.

The “decent work” concept is typically used in argument around labour market flexibility. This argument holds that that South Africans should not just be employed in conditions which are unacceptable  (as compared to first world standards) but that all South African workers have the right to decent working conditions, decent pay and the right to acquire skills and advance themselves. One of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) working definitions of decent work is “productive work under conditions of freedom equity, security and dignity, in which rights are protected and adequate remuneration and social coverage are provided” (ILO, 2010, p.1).

However, the concept of “decent work” is used by the ILO more as an umbrella concept for a process of defining national priorities for development in the world of work,  thus each country defines for itself how it intends to proceed (ILO, 2011). It should be noted that the ILO concept does not set minimum standards for pay, but relates it more to poverty levels. The ILO’s Decent Work programme for South Africa agreed at Nedlac in 2010 states four priorities: strengthening fundamental principles and rights at work; promoting employment creation; strengthening and broadening social protection coverage, and strengthening tripartism and social dialogue.

There is no research which shows the extent to which South African workers in both the formal and informal sector have “decent” employment conditions. Whilst formal sector employees are theoretically protected by the comprehensive set of South African labour laws, it is clear from recent press reports concerning non-compliant employers in the clothing industry, that clean, healthy and safe working conditions are not universally available. Employment conditions in sub-contracted and outsourced companies are also often not clear and could fall below the floor of legislated standards.  If this is the situation in South Africa, the situation in the rest of Africa could be far worse, because other countries do not have the same standards of legislated labour protection. South African companies operating elsewhere in Africa rarely apply South African standards to those African operations, choosing rather to comply to local standards.

Certainly, one of the key challenges to accelerating economic growth in South Africa is how to reconcile the high standards already in place for formal sector workers with the more usual development route, described by Bernstein (2010) as being through so-called “sweat-shops” to higher paid and better protected work. It could be argued that a business in the start-up phase, where the owner is taking high financial risks, could justify paying low wages, but safe, healthy working conditions where employees can learn new skills should always be provided. Possibly the exemption systems of bargaining councils could be looked at in this regard.

We would like to thank South African managers, union leaders and HR professionals for striving towards making decent work a reality in South Africa.  The National Human Resource (HR) Standards developed by SABPP provide a good platform for creating a management system in which decent work can become the norm in managing people in the workplace.  Let us make all work decent.


Dr Penny Abbott is Head of Products and Research at SABPP.  You can follow SABPP on twitter @SABPP1, website and blog  This article is an extract from the SABPP position paper on contingent work and decent work.


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